Relationships are tricky business. Some say monogamy is overrated; some believe it's the only way. After my divorce, I decided that I should try out a variety of relationship styles to figure out exactly what I wanted. I'd been in a committed relationship for the majority of my adult life, and jumping into another one felt off somehow. "If this one didn't work out, why wouldn't another turn out just the same?" I asked myself. Of course, that was just my post-breakup brain talking. Committed, monogamous relationships are wonderful, but I was ready to try something new.
As I dipped my toes into the world of open relationships, I started by asking Google some questions: What is an open relationship exactly? How do you find other people who are interested in this setup? What books should I read about polyamory and the like? What if I don't want to be someone's secondary relationship?
Google didn't let me down, providing at least one billion different links to read (seriously). A book that continuously popped up was The Ethical Slut. A friend also suggested reading Mating in Captivity, just to feel out both sides of this precarious coin. Soon, I found a new relationship and shared what books I was reading with him. I cringed slightly, awaiting his response to my suggestion that we have an open relationship when we had only been seeing each other for a couple of months. Surprisingly, though, he was open to it. I was excited, but as it turns out, I was so unprepared for what it was actually like. Here are five things I wish I had known about being in an open relationship before actually being in one.
- A foundation of healthy communication is critical. Relationships bring out every emotion and feeling, and that's before you add in extra people. If you struggle with healthy communication, i.e. no yelling, name calling, shaming, passive aggressiveness, and so on, then adding other romantic relationships into the mix might just exacerbate things. Opening your relationship isn't necessarily a solution for a couple who are already struggling. Healthy communication should be your starting point. Do you really want to be in this primary relationship? If so, what are your reasons for wanting an open relationship?
- Set some ground rules beforehand. Do you have dealbreakers when it comes to an open relationship? Maybe you only want things to be open at certain times, like when visiting a sex club. Or maybe you're OK with hookups that are mostly physical, but you're against your partner developing a more romantically intimate relationship with someone else. Maybe sex is OK, but no sleeping over at each other's houses. Whatever your MO is, vocalize it. Your partner won't know what your needs are if you don't share them.
- It's easier to accept the idea of your partner having sex with someone else than actually navigating it in real time. That communication thing will come in handy here. Setting some ground rules is essential before venturing into open relationship territory. But even if you talk about everything that might make you uncomfortable — BAM! — something you least expected to bother you will. It's just part of the deal and something that you have to work through together. When we first ventured into other relationships, I asked my partner to share the first time he had sex with someone else so I could process it. I wasn't expecting the grief that I felt, but it was important for me to feel that so I could make an informed choice about whether I could do this thing or not.
- Be secure in who you are as a person. This seems obvious, and maybe others don't struggle with this, but there are times when my partner would be sharing things with me about a different partner (communicate if you want to hear about other partners), and what was being shared was completely opposite of how our relationship was. That inner critic began to pipe up in my head, saying, "She's better than you are. Prettier. More fun." Bat that critic down, and love yourself because you are enough. Your partner's affection for someone else doesn't diminish who you are as a person in the slightest. I don't want to be like someone else, and neither should you. If fears of "What if my partner decides to be with that other person?" pop into your head, acknowledge them. None of us are obligated to anyone else. If our partner, or we, decide to leave a relationship, that's OK. It's OK to move on. And it's also OK to grieve those losses if they occur.
- Know that everything is temporary. I often have an all-or-nothing mentality (maybe it's the Scorpio in me). When I say everything is temporary, I mean that every second of every day, things change. Some things are out of our control, and some things aren't. If something isn't working for you, voice it. Change it. If you were comfortable with something before but no longer are, say so. Just because you choose a path doesn't mean it's set in stone. If you or your partner want to continue this lifestyle and the other doesn't, that's OK. It might mean having to walk away from the relationship, or it might mean redrawing some boundaries that everyone is comfortable with.
Being in an open relationship isn't for everyone. I grew up in a very rigid, close-minded area where I didn't know such a thing existed. Allow yourself, if you want, to consider the idea, especially if it's something that has piqued your interest in the past. Treat yourself with compassion, patience, openness, and probably a healthy dose of humor (because, hey, it makes for good stories) if you decide to give an open relationship a try. You might just love it. Or you might not. But that's the beautiful thing about life; you can always change your mind.